A Case for Conditionalism


What is conditionalism? Basically, there are three views on hell, and they are all represented within evangelicalism. There is traditionalism, universalism and conditionalism. Setting aside for the moment that there are different varieties among these views, I will speak in general terms about each position:1

  • The predominant view is traditionalism which is the perspective that we are all eternal beings who will live forever either in heaven or hell.2 Within this view are two alternatives as to the nature of hell. Eternal torment is the more “traditional” view where the unbeliever is tormented in literal fire. Eternal separation is a softer and increasingly popular view where the unbeliever is eternally separated from God – in this view the fire is treated as a metaphor. In either of these, the unbeliever will never die or be freed from this state of punishment. This is the view I grew up with and came to believe for most of my life.
  • Universalism is the view of hell as a place of burning which is refining and purifying with the ultimate purpose that all will eventually come to a place of repentance and restoration with God and then enter Heaven. The length of time for this purified repentance will vary for each unbeliever, but God’s love, according to Universalists, is powerful enough to bring all to repentance and restoration. In other words, hell will eventually empty itself and cease to be.
  • And just briefly, because it will be fleshed out more: conditionalism is the view that we are not all eternal or immortal beings, unlike God. Eternal life and immortality is “conditional” upon faith in Jesus Christ, and is given only as a good gift, not as a curse. When the condition of salvation is not met, hell is a place of complete destruction and annihilation. In this view, the unbeliever eventually perishes and ceases to be.

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  1. Most seem to believe in a form of “separationism.” Along with this is a form of “lewisianism” in which all who are in hell, ultimately choose it, and hell’s door is locked from the inside (C.S.Lewis). Yet there are those, like N.T.Wright, who suggest a kind of “dehumanization,” that those who refuse to respond to the gospel, and only worship themselves, “that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not,” but however, he admits that this is wandering into “territory that no one can claim to have mapped” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York, NY: Harper One, 2008], 183.). To illustrate this, some point to Smeagol’s ghastly transformation into Gollum in the LOTR Trilogy. Yet, ironically, Gollum is eventually annihilated in the volcanic fires of Mount Doom. []
  2. The label “traditionalism” suggests that the alternate views are not found in church tradition, which is untrue. []

Psalm 37—A Song of Annihilation

1. Psalm 37 shouts annihilationism

It may be that no passage of Scripture declares annihilationism (the ultimate destruction of wicked unbelievers) with clearer language than . Does it surprise you to find such a teaching in the Old Testament? It shouldn’t. Doesn’t contain one of the clearest presentations of substitutionary atonement and convey one of the most graphic and moving descriptions of the crucifixion? As the Old Testament authors were inspired to share God’s work in their lives and their world, sometimes truths were revealed which went far beyond their own horizons.

is filled with words and phrases that describe the fate of the unrighteous. In this psalm we are told that “the future of the wicked will be destroyed,” and that they themselves will:

“be destroyed”
“be no more”
“not be there”
“perish”
“fade away like smoke”
“be destroyed”
“not be found”
“be eliminated”

These words do not sound like eternal torment. They certainly do not sound like universal reconciliation! But they do sound like annihilation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any language which would more clearly portray the final fate of the unrighteous as one of permanent and complete destruction.

Continue reading “Psalm 37—A Song of Annihilation”

37:1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.

12 The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes his teeth at him,
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

16 Better is the little that the righteous has
than the abundance of many wicked.
17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous.

18 The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
and their heritage will remain forever;
19 they are not put to shame in evil times;
in the days of famine they have abundance.

20 But the wicked will perish;
the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

21 The wicked borrows but does not pay back,
but the righteous is generous and gives;
22 for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,
but those cursed by him shall be cut off.

23 The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
24 though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand.

25 I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.
26 He is ever lending generously,
and his children become a blessing.

27 Turn away from evil and do good;
so shall you dwell forever.
28 For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his saints.
They are preserved forever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
29 The righteous shall inherit the land
and dwell upon it forever.

30 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.
31 The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip.

32 The wicked watches for the righteous
and seeks to put him to death.
33 The Lord will not abandon him to his power
or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord and keep his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on when the wicked are cut off.

35 I have seen a wicked, ruthless man,
spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
36 But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
though I sought him, he could not be found.

37 Mark the blameless and behold the upright,
for there is a future for the man of peace.
38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
the future of the wicked shall be cut off.

39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
40 The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.

53:1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
10 On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.

12 Many bulls encompass me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17 I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!

22 I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
28 For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
30 Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.

37:1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.

12 The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes his teeth at him,
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

16 Better is the little that the righteous has
than the abundance of many wicked.
17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous.

18 The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
and their heritage will remain forever;
19 they are not put to shame in evil times;
in the days of famine they have abundance.

20 But the wicked will perish;
the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

21 The wicked borrows but does not pay back,
but the righteous is generous and gives;
22 for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,
but those cursed by him shall be cut off.

23 The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
24 though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand.

25 I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.
26 He is ever lending generously,
and his children become a blessing.

27 Turn away from evil and do good;
so shall you dwell forever.
28 For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his saints.
They are preserved forever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
29 The righteous shall inherit the land
and dwell upon it forever.

30 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.
31 The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip.

32 The wicked watches for the righteous
and seeks to put him to death.
33 The Lord will not abandon him to his power
or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord and keep his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
you will look on when the wicked are cut off.

35 I have seen a wicked, ruthless man,
spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
36 But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
though I sought him, he could not be found.

37 Mark the blameless and behold the upright,
for there is a future for the man of peace.
38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
the future of the wicked shall be cut off.

39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
40 The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.

Death or Eternal Suffering—Which One Reveals How Much Jesus Loves You? (A Response to Timothy Keller)

Timothy Keller is a widely respected Christian pastor and much-needed public voice. But even our best and brightest are prone to saying questionable things due to the implications of their doctrine of hell. A case in point is Pastor Keller’s recent tweet: “Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.” This statement proved to be quite controversial, leading Keller in subsequent tweets and comments to seek to clarify what he had meant.

Now, to those like myself who believed for decades that the Bible taught a hell of eternal torment, Keller’s statement doesn’t seem controversial at all. It hits all the right notes for conservative evangelicals, and just feels appropriately pious and true. It’s one of those statements you whip out when you want to defend hell from its liberal or postmodern detractors. There are many variations on the theme—to do with God’s love, glory, holiness, or even His willingness to defer to the sinner’s own desires—but in each case the basic formula is the notion that the worse hell looks, the better God looks by contrast.

For example, if you think that the idea of a loving Creator tormenting people should cause us to raise at least one eyebrow, simply realize that people in hell are tormenting themselves, and you’ll soon feel much better about the whole thing. In time, you will see that God is really being magnanimous for giving them a separate place to do so. You know, forever.

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